Blog: Terror Management Theory and Anti-Atheist Prejudice in America

Kyle Thompson examines anti-atheist prejudice in American and argues that they are generallyKyle Thomson seen as threatening ‘other’ including theistic worldviews and even fellow atheists. He suggests comparison among other prejudiced groups will help us understand why atheists are viewed so negatively by the American public.


Although the US presidential election is not until November, Americans are already consumed by the constant campaign coverage (White 2015). As always, citizens are concerned with each candidate’s promises, plans, and scandals as well as his or her identity. In timely conjunction with this election-season fervor, Gallup recently reminded everyone just how salient certain identities are by releasing the results of its latest identity poll, which asks respondents whether they would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who is Muslim, or female, or homosexual, etc. (McCarthy 2015). And, for the first time since the 1978 poll, atheists, who saw a 4% improvement in approval from the 2012 poll, don’t find themselves at the bottom of the list (Jones 2012). No, it was the newly added ‘socialist’ category, likely included because of self-described ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders, that had the least approval, at 47% (Ehrenfreund 2015; McCarthy 2015).

But, before atheists start celebrating too much, they must remember that 40% of Americans said they would not vote for a well-qualified candidate based on an identity, atheism, that has nothing (necessarily) to do with his or her policies (McCarthy 2015). And it doesn’t stop there. Atheists are consistently viewed negatively by the American public, not just when running for office (Gervais et al. 2011; Edgell et al. 2006).

So what causes anti-atheist prejudice both inside and outside of the political arena?  Why are atheists viewed so negatively in the United States, even by other atheists (Wright and Nichols 2014)? To help answer these questions, we might consider a new study conducted by psychologists Corey L. Cook, Florette Cohen, and Sheldon Solomon (2015) entitled What If They’re Right About the Afterlife?  Evidence of the Role of Existential Threat on Anti-Atheist Prejudice. Adding to the ever-growing body of research on anti-atheist prejudice, which has already connected such prejudice to concerns about atheists being untrustworthy and threatening to in-group values, this study focused on the existential threat that atheism poses to theistic worldviews (Gervais et al. 2011; Cook et al. 2014). Specifically, the researchers based their hypotheses on terror management theory, originally developed by Solomon himself along with two other psychologists, which posits that “the uniquely human awareness of death gives rise to potentially paralyzing terror that is assuaged by cultural worldviews that afford a sense that one is a valuable participant in a meaningful universe,” in order to see whether atheists, by holding to a worldview which denies a belief in God or an afterlife, threaten to undermine the terror-buffer that religious worldviews often generate (Greenberg et al. 1986; Cook et al. 2015, p. 840). In brief, the two separate experiments in this study found a significant empirical link between existential concerns and anti-atheist prejudice (Cook et al. 2015).

To establish this empirical link, which Cook, Cohen, and Solomon claim is the first of its kind, the first of the two experiments had participants—236 students from the College of Staten Island—write down their thoughts about either their own death or being in extreme pain before gauging their thoughts and feelings toward either atheists or Quakers (Cook et al. 2015). The key finding here wasn’t that Americans think better of Quakers, which was in fact reflected in the data, but rather that participants who were given the subtle reminder of their deaths, when compared to those primed to think about extreme pain, were more disparaging toward atheists, rated atheists as more untrustworthy, and socially distanced themselves more from atheists (Cook et al. 2015).

For the second experiment, 200 participants from the same college were primed to think about pain, death, or atheism before being tested for the presence of implicit thoughts of death (e.g., the kind of implicit thoughts that would have someone complete “S K       L” with “skull” as opposed to “skill”).  The key finding here was that thinking about atheism or death caused the highest occurrences of implicit death thoughts.

So what exactly do these data mean?  According to Cook, Cohen, and Solomon, these two studies show that “hostility toward and mistrust of atheists is particularly pronounced when existential concerns are aroused and that, for believers, the mere contemplation of atheism can arouse intimations of mortality” (Cook et al. 2015, p. 844).  That is, the connection between death and atheism appears to be a two-way street: thoughts of death increase denigration of atheists and thoughts of atheism cause an increase in implicit death thoughts. And, I think that, given the scientific rigour of this study, the researchers are on solid ground when making this conclusion.  However, given the chosen control conditions in both experiments, this study doesn’t allow one to draw the stronger conclusion that seems to be hinted at, yet never explicitly stated, in the very framing of the publication: that the findings result from unique aspects of atheism, such as the denial of an afterlife and a disbelief in God.

That is, while the title—What If They’re Right About the Afterlife?—implies that atheists’ denial of an afterlife equates to an existential threat to common theistic worldviews, it is entirely possible that atheism disrupts terror management simply because atheists are stereotyped as a generally threatening ‘other,’ even to fellow atheists.  In other words, asking people about Quakers doesn’t tell us enough about why atheists are denigrated after death-priming.  Thus, the first experiment could have benefitted from comparing people’s reactions to atheists to other negatively viewed groups of people, such as Muslims and homosexuals, or even thieves and murderers. This would then provide more insight regarding atheists in particular as a prejudiced group.  Likewise, the second experiment would have been more revelatory had it included negatively viewed groups of people, other than atheists, as primers for implicit death thoughts.  This would have, in my estimation, helped elucidate whether or not anti-atheist prejudice results from a general distrust and dislike or from something specific to atheism, such as a rejection of an afterlife.

While social scientists may never be able to pinpoint exactly what it is about atheists that Americans find so troublesome, this study might be said to make a further contribution. The work of Cook, Cohen, and Solomon demonstrates a clear connection between existential concerns and anti-atheist prejudice while opening up the possibility for future research to examine the specifics of these concerns.  I look forward to seeing more experiments on anti-atheist prejudice, and I encourage researchers to take up the suggestion detailed at the conclusion of this study and help identify “benign ways to parry the existential threat that atheists pose to believers, thus mitigating the hostility and intolerance that they are often subjected to” (Cook et al. 2015, p. 845).  In addition, I hope that more Americans, regardless of their worldviews, will help to reduce anti-atheist prejudice by coming to understand that their fellow atheist citizens are not to be feared so that we can all begin denying presidential candidates votes not because of their views of divinity, but because of their bad ideas and policies.

References

Cook, CL, Cohen, F & Solomon, S., 2015. What if they’re right about the afterlife? Evidence of the role of existential threat on anti-atheist prejudice, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(7), pp. 840-846.

Cook, CL, Cotrell, CA & Webster GD., 2014. No good without God: Antiatheist prejudice as a function of threats to morals and values, Psychology of Religion & Spirituality, 7(3), pp. 217-226.

Ehrenfreund, M., 2015. Are you a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders? Take the Quiz, The Washington Post 19 November. Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/10/23/are-you-a-democratic-socialist-take-the-quiz/.  [10 December 2015].

Gervais, WM, Shariff, AF, & Norenzayan, A., 2011. Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), pp. 1198-1206.

Greenberg, J, Pyszczynski T & Solomon S., 1986. The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In: Public Self and Private Self, Edited by Roy F. Baumeister, pp. 189–212. New York: Springer.

Jones, JM., 2012. Atheists, Muslims see most bias as presidential candidates, Gallup 21 June. Available from: http://www.gallup.com/poll/155285/atheists-muslims-bias-presidential-candidates.aspx. [10 December 2015].

McCarthy, J., 2015. In U.S., socialist presidential candidates least appealing, Gallup 22 June. Available from: http://www.gallup.com/poll/183713/socialist-presidential-candidates-least-appealing.aspx. [10 December 2015].

White, B., 2015. What an anxious America tells us about 2016 election, CNBC 4 August. Available from: http://www.cnbc.com/2015/08/04/what-an-anxious-america-tells-us-about-2016-election.html. [10 December 2015].

Wright, JC & Nichols, R., 2014. The social cost of atheism: How perceived religiosity influences moral appraisal, Journal of Cognition and Culture, 14(1), pp. 93-115.


Kyle Thompson is a PhD candidate at Claremont Graduate University in the Philosophy program. His interests include atheism, secularism, scientism, not taking life too seriously, exploring the globe and playing music. He lives with his beautiful wife, his two amazing dogs, and his marvelously mischievous cat in Claremont, CA.

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